World's 10 most spectacular waterfalls

In some senses, a waterfall is the planet at its most rudimentary. Even the grandest of cascades is, after all, a simple case of physics - the raw effect of gravity on one of the most intrinsic elements of life in our world, no more remarkable than a summer raindrop, the first splatters of drizzle on a car windscreen, or a persistently leaky roof.

And yet to reduce these roaring "landmarks" to examples of cause and effect is to ignore their majesty. The waterfall has always captured the imagination - the sparkling vision of a river dashing over a high precipice leading early civilisations to engage in talk of gods and heroes, and later travellers to reach out for cameras and effusive superlatives.

Witness the words of David Livingstone - not a man given to hyperbole - on seeing what he would call Victoria Falls, on November 16 1855: "Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi… No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."

In short, a major waterfall is likely to be the centrepoint of any holiday journey. The joy is that while you can travel to Zimbabwe or Zambia to see Victoria Falls for yourself, you can also find epic alternatives on every continent - a happy consequence of the waterfall's ordinariness. The following selection of watery wonders includes some of the global classics, but also less eulogised natural marvels a little closer to home.

Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

If you could custom-build the perfect waterfall, it might resemble Kaieteur Falls. Tucked away at the heart of Guyana, on the north-east shoulder of South America, this is the waterfall as supermodel - a single curtain of liquid where the River Potaro slips 226 metres into a forested chasm. Remoteness only adds to its splendour - it is most easily reached via a nearby airstrip (the alternative is a three-day overland journey). Yet it is not so jungle-clad as to be beyond approach.

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Just 346 kilometres separate Kaieteur and Angel Falls, though the latter has the bigger profile. Rearing proud in Canaima National Park, in the easterly Gran Sabana area of Venezuela, it is considered the world's tallest waterfall - a spectacle where the River Kerep plunges 979 metres) (807 metres of this as an uninterrupted drop). This is thanks to the drama of a landscape where vast tepuis (tabletop mountains, in this case the noble Auyantepui) throw out a series of sheer faces. The whole scene is best viewed between June and December, when both waterfall and river are at their fullest.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil, Argentina

South America also works its magic farther south, where the renowned Iguassu Falls are among the planet's most spectacular border spots - foaming furiously to help the River Iguazu split Brazil from Argentina. Here, the prescient factor is not height (282 metres) but width, this spray-soaked showpiece stretching out for 2.7 kilomteres. The focal point is the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) - a 700-metre U-shaped half-bowl where the relentless power of the river is almost unnerving.

Tugela Falls, South Africa

This column of water crashes 948 metres in Royal Natal National Park, a highlight of KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. Officially, this makes it 31 metres shorter than the Angel Falls in Venezuela, though doubts have been raised by some about the exact measurements of the latter. What is not debated, however, is the sheer glory of this African vista as the River Tugela pours over The Amphitheatre - a cliff face in the Drakensberg range that can be hiked by those of decent fitness (see www.royalnatal.info).

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Zambia

As in Livingstone's day, Victoria Falls is Africa's A-list waterfall. It is also the world's biggest, if you take into account a combination of height 108 metres and width 708 metres. Its aura is encapsulated by its indigenous name (in the Tonga language), Mosi-oa-Tunya - The Smoke That Thunders. Brave souls can go further than Livingstone by swimming in the Devil's Pool - a pocket of water on the edge of the abyss where a rock ledge and a lull in the currents keep you safe. Others may prefer to watch from a discreet distance - especially from February to May, when the Zambezi is at its most swollen.

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Niagara Falls, US, Canada

North America's most recognisable waterfall may also be the world's most famous - even if its size cannot match its reputation. In relation to other water icons, Niagara Falls is a stripling of 51 metres in height - so small that, on visiting Iguassu Falls, the then-US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reputedly exclaimed, "Poor Niagara!" However, issues of stature do not damage the visual experience: the River Niagara zipping over the falls' three distinct cascades in a place that is as crucial to the US soul as the Statue of Liberty. That said, the view from Canada is prettier.

Browne Falls, New Zealand

In most cases, a waterfall dominates its location. But Browne Falls is the garnish on an already tasty dish, spooling down the flank of Doubtful Sound - that king of the fjords on New Zealand's South Island. This is not to say, however, that the waterfall is a footnote. Though narrow, it dips 836 metres from its source (a tarn on the fjord's lip) - as the tallest waterfall in Australasia.

Vinnufossen, Norway

Europe also proffers some of the planet's most striking waterfalls. The continent's tallest is Vinnufossen, an elegant giant, fed by the Vinnufonna glacier, which drops 860 metres in central Norway, 531 kilometres north-east of Bergen. More a tapering stream than a raging torrent, it is easily combined with its boisterous ally Mardalsfossen, which lies a 80.5-kilometre drive away, near Eikesdalen. The latter requires a visit between June and August - for the rest of the year, its 705-metre motion is channelled for hydroelectricity.

Dettifoss, Iceland

With its craggy contours, Iceland might be the spiritual home of the waterfall. So it seems in the form of Dettifoss, an unstoppable force in the north-east of the country whose height of a mere 45 metres does not hinder its reputation for being Europe's most powerful waterfall - the River Jokulsa a Fjollum rushing down at a rate of 212 tonnes of water per second.

It has friends too - the lovely 32-metre Gullfoss, in the south-west of the country, where rainbows dance on the River Hvita; Skogafoss, in the south, where the River Skoga barrels 60 metres over ancient coastal cliffs left marooned by the receding Atlantic.

Eas a' Chual Aluinn, UK

A star also shines in Scotland, where Eas a' Chual Aluinn - near Kylesku, in Sutherland, in the Highlands - dives down more than 200 metres. That this statistic makes the waterfall more than three times taller than Niagara is often unheralded, but intrigued parties can discover more. A close to 10-kilometre trail winds to the head of the falls over rough (but accessible) terrain (details at www.walkhighlands.co.uk).

The Telegraph, London

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